Iron, Steel and Oil – The Fight For Resources I THE GREAT WAR Week 18


The first three months of the war have seen
a whole new way of waging war. In addition to the ever more effective weapons of war
that now kill hundreds of thousands of men in mere weeks, airplanes fly the skies to
spot for artillery, submarines prowl beneath the seas to sink sailors to watery graves,
and cars and trucks transport men and equipment like never before, and just as all wars at
some point become a war for vital resources, all of these new machines require a new one
and the Great War had now become a war for oil. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. When we left off we saw the Germans and Russians
fighting the colossal battle of Lodz, which, though it did not result in German control
of the city, did scuttle Russia’s plans for an invasion of Silesia. With the end of
the Battle of Ypres the Western Front had congealed into a frozen stalemate, and in
the Balkans, the Austrian army was pushing back the Serbs from the Kolubara River. Now, there were over 100,000 Austrian troops
further north under siege by the Russians in the fortress of Przemysl, but there was
still another Austrian army fighting in the field near Cracow. The Austrian army had retreated from the battles
along the San River a couple of weeks ago after heavy losses and though much of their
army was holed up at Przemysl, they had a huge force at Cracow which the Russians, after
cautiously advancing, had attacked on the 16th. Over the next ten days the Austrian
army managed to stop the Russian juggernaut, but at the cost of 30,000 casualties, and
by the 26th they were forced to pull back. The Russians were now only 8 miles from Cracow,
the capital of Austrian Poland. But the Austrians were making headway in the
Balkans at least. Although they were suffering heavy casualties,
they were pushing further and further into Serbia day after day[g][h]. Actually, General
Oskar Potiorek thought that the Serbs were trying to lure the Austrians deep into the
country so they could be encircled, but he reasoned- correctly- that they were not in
a position to do so. After three days of fighting, the Serbs were
driven from Mount Maljen the 24th, but Potiorek did not follow this up. His casualties had
been too heavy, and the terrain had become too difficult for his exhausted troops, so
the Serbs retreated unmolested. Potiorek was still convinced, though, that the fall of
Serbia was only a few days away and even appointed the country’s future governor, but when
his army attempted to cross the junction of the Kolubara and Sava rivers on November 26th,
the Serbs forced them back with 50% casualties and the Austrian offensive ground to a halt. As we’ve seen month after month, the Austrian
army has had its share of disaster in the field, but the troubles in the army were also
internal. Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf was so
worried about the national minorities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire attempting to seize
power during moments of Austrian weakness during the war that he tried to impose military
rule in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. Emperor Franz Josef rejected this plan. Conrad’s
worries did have some basis in reality, for Poles, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, and other
minorities were suspect in their sympathies, many of those minorities having a stronger
affinity for the Russian enemy and occasionally even deserting and changing sides. One side note here, Jews were not considered
suspect as many of the other minorities were and actually played a large part in Austrian
military affairs. Three of the Empire’s Field Marshalls were Jewish and eight of her
generals. When you think about it, though unique in
many other ways, this war was also unique that so many of the world’s religions took
part in it. This week saw the end of the Battle of Basra
in what is now Iraq, where British and Indian troops defeated the Ottomans. There’s a
bunch of religions fighting right there. Now, two weeks ago the British had landed troops
and taken the Fortress of Fao, the main Ottoman fortress on the coast of the Persian Gulf.
See, when the Ottoman Empire had entered the war at the beginning of November, Britain
had begun to worry about her oil facilities in the Persian Gulf. The capture of Fao was the first step in securing
them. The London War office, actually, favored simply defending British oil supplies and
not engaging in offensive maneuvers, but the Indian government, who provided the troops,
favored a policy of “forward defense”. You can guess what that meant. Basra, on the
Shatt-al-Arab River, was the next step in securing the oil. On the 19th of November, under General Sir
Arthur Barrett, the British attacked, but heavy rainfall that turned the land to mud
stalled the attack until the artillery could finally be brought up. The Ottoman army broke
under the bombardment and fled the city, and Basra was occupied two days later. The campaign could easily have ended then-
the oil supplies and oil flow were secure- but Basra turned out to be a pretty bad base
of operations. It was a minor port, sure, but it was missing a lot of basic facilities
like sanitation. There were no railways, there were few roads, and the water supply was just
the dirty river. Now, the River itself was a tidal river with
many tributary creeks that filled a flood plain that actually flooded on a daily basis,
and for half of the year the entire region flooded leaving Basra as an island[al], so
Barrett decided to follow the retreating Ottomans upriver to Qurna and try to make his base
there, where the Tigris and Euphrates flow together to form the Shatt-al-Arab. Of course, oil was not the only raw material
in big demand this war, and I’m going to throw some quick statistics at you right now.
If you look at the part of France occupied by the Germans you see that Germany now held
2/3 of France’s iron production, a quarter of its steel, and a full half of French coal
mining capacity. Now, these are big numbers when you think
of the enormous amounts of machines that need to be built and operated, but fortunately
there was one machine that didn’t run on oil and didn’t require any coal: the horse. You needed a horse for almost everything in
1914, and there was no way you were going to get your heavy artillery into place without
a great deal of horsepower. An estimated two million horses served on
the Western Front on both sides during the war, and while I don’t have numbers for
all of the armies, I do have some British numbers thanks to Max Hastings book “Catastrophe”. In the first 12 days of the war, the British
army bought 165,000 horses. The horses and mules of the BEF had an annual mortality rate
of 29% with 13,000 of them dead by the end of 1914. You’d think that since they were such a
vital necessity they’d be better treated in general, but such was not the case. There
weren’t enough knowledgeable riders and grooms, for one thing, food and water was
often neglected or withheld, men galloped on paved roads, saddle sores were ignored,
and heavy plough horses were conscripted into armies to pull heavy artillery even though
all the experts said it was a really bad idea. They required large amounts of provisions,
could not make forced marches, and were highly susceptible to disease, so they died by the
thousands and it was only trial and error by the British and French that finally discovered
that American country horses from the plains and badlands of the Dakotas were far more
suitable for war than any horses raised in barns. By the end of the war, the British
army had nearly a half million horses and the Veterinary Corps personnel had grown from
360 to 28,000 four years later. So here we are near the end of November, exactly
four months into the war, and at the end of the week the Austrians are stuck in Serbia,
surrounded in Przemysl, and in trouble at Cracow. The British are on the move into Mesopotamia,
and in Belgium, France, Poland, and Eastern Turkey everyone on both sides is frozen and
miserable. Valentine Fleming, MP and father of James
Bond creator Ian Fleming, wrote, “It’s going to be a long war, in spite of the fact
that on both sides every single man wants it stopped at once.” This was absolutely
true, from the generals on down. There was no end in sight; there was no relief in site,
and the men on the western front who had a week relatively free of constant bombardment
and furious rushes across no-mans land considered themselves lucky. The only way to win this war was to seek new
technological advantages and one of the requirements for them was oil. Both sides now found themselves
in a struggle for oil that would last for four years and kill thousands upon thousands
of young men. Most of these young men lived the last days
of their live in a vast network of trenches that was covering especially the Western Front.
From the early improvised days, it didn’t took long till these trenches were a parallel
world with structures that would go way beyond the inital purpose of pure protection of enemy
bullets. If you want to find out more about the trench system, check out our special episode.
And let us know in the comments what other topics you want to see in future special episodes. See you next week.

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